Just to get the uninitiated up to speed, The Last Airbender is based on a fairly sophisticated Nickelodeon animated series called Avatar: The Last Airbender, but had to surrender its full title, apparently because James Cameron created a semi-obscure little 3-D passion play about naked blue cat aliens, called funnily enough, Avatar. The absurd success of that bloated spectacle apparently inspired the makers of this one to hastily convert the miles of boring old footage already shot into that most sexy and lucrative of extra dimensions, at untold additional cost. Oddly, all the business wrangling is somewhat less convoluted than the overloaded plot here, which winds itself into knots as expertly as its magical characters can contort the elements.
The setting is a fantasy world where rival kingdoms representing the cardinal elements are all at war for some arcane reason, and the key to lasting peace lies with the legendary "Avatar," a one-of-a-kind mystic of great power. The menacing, technologically superior Fire Nation are the aggressors, having hunted the Air Nomads into near extinction, and now menacing the Water People, who are themselves split into feuding Southern and Northern tribes. As for the Earth Nation? Eh, nobody seems to give a crap about them.
The elite warriors of these armies are capable of "bending" elements to their will, which mostly means throwing little fireballs while doing kung-fu poses, but even the strongest can master but one element. As it turns out, the mighty Avatar, who can control all four powers, is a 12-year-old boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) who has been frozen in an iceberg for a 100 years, until thawed out by a pair of personality-deprived teen siblings. With these new sidekicks in tow, Aang soars off on his flying bison to set things right, through a series of special effects set pieces and by using his most powerful weapon: an avalanche of exposition.
On TV, Aang was a sweet-natured, goofy kid, able to walk on air but with feet of clay. The screen version is like Richard Gere's idea of an action hero: a super-powered Dalai Lama full of beatific wisdom. You have to have holy patience to deliver this stilted dialogue, with each moment filled with earth-shattering import; at one point the fate of the world is dependent on a pair of magical carp.
Nothing here is helped by M. Night Shyamalan's bizarre casting choices. The cartoon, with its faux-anime style, skews heavily Asian, with the Fire Nation seemingly Chinese, etc. Here the extras are all a racial hodgepodge, with the heroes being lily-white, and the villains all being played by British Indians, except for Cliff Curtis, who is actually Maori. It's also difficult to take the bad guys seriously when they are led by the likes of Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) and Daily Show funnyman Asif Mandvi.
The ethnic jumble is echoed in the narrative confusion, and it's all buried under muddy-looking 3-D graphics. As with Clash of the Titans, the studio rush-job is evident, with blurriness marring the occasionally cool stunts and poetic visuals. If this doesn't kill Shyamalan's overhyped career, it should mortally wound it, consigning it to the dustbin of history as surely as the Airbender merch will clog the dollar-store bins that claimed that of the Golden Compass.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.